Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What’s Left, Part I

During the summer of 1995 I was working as a reporter and editorial writer for the Kerrville Daily Times and I had the rare privilege of writing a weekly opinion column for the paper. I had written a couple of columns previously, including the one on the JFK assassination, but now I had a regular column with my picture on it and even a name. I called it “What’s Left?”
Alas, it was short-lived. A couple of months after I began writing the column, I got a job at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and moved away. So there were only 11 “What’s Left?” columns published over a three-month period.
For my own edification, I am going to publish those old columns on my blog as I have time to transcribe them. Here is one of the first, published on July 20, 1995.

Choices few for those who decline alcohol

Despite the gray patches that have begun showing up in my hair, most people still tell me I look young for my age. That goes double for my wife, what at 27 still looks like she should be in high school.
When we go out to a nice restaurant, it’s not unusual for the waiter or waitress to assume that we are just kids out on a date. Their suspicions of our youthfulness always seem to be confirmed when we decline to order an alcoholic beverage. The general assumption is that if we were old enough to drink we would, so therefore we must be too young.
This is irritating for several reasons, not least of which is that from that point on we generally receive poor service. After all, we are just a couple of kids probably using our parent’s credit card and aren’t likely to leave a good tip.
But the most annoying aspect is the idea that we could somehow have demonstrated our age and maturity by drinking. Is it any wonder that we have a serious problem today with underage drinking — not to mention drinking in general — when drinking is constantly used as the yardstick that measures the difference between youth and adulthood?
In today’s alcohol-soaked culture, the very term “drink” has come to mean the consumption of liquor. In college, students learn quickly that they have to drink to fit in with the in crowd. Every party I ever went to in college revolved around alcohol and I spent much of the time holding a half-empty glass of lukewarm beer so that people would not continually harass me about “not having a good time.”
All through my college years there seemed to be an invisible barrier separating my friends who would drink and my friends who did not. There were few social activities we could find to do together after our freshman year. It seemed quite apparent in those days, too, that the drinking crowd was more popular with the opposite sex. Their continuous parties always attracted lots of young women while those of us who did not drink saw ourselves as the geeky, nerdish-types who could never find dates.
Today, the pressures on our youth to drink in order to fit in, have fun and show their maturity are no less daunting. Raising the drinking age to 21 appears to have made the activity seem all the more alluring to youth seeking to be treated as adults.
I’m not persuaded that any change in the laws, whether it be tightening or loosening restrictions, will make a big difference as long as our societal mindset is such that alcohol is the requisite for any get together involving two or more people. And I would not even begrudge anyone a drink who chooses to do so. My biggest gripe is with the way our society and our culture so often treat the non-drinkers like social misfits.
For a perfect example, go to most any fancy restaurant and see what they have to offer in the way of beverages. For the drinker it is typically a paradise — dozens of beers from around the world, a completely separate menu for all the wines and champagnes and every imaginable mixed drink available at the well-stocked bar.
But for the non-drinker? Well let’s see... There’s tea, one kind only — take it or leave it; a handful of sodas, including diet drinks; and coffee (see reference to tea above). Sometimes you can get milk if you beg and plead with the waiter and don’t mind waiting 30 minutes before they will serve it to you.
There is one clear message that comes out of that and it is quite simple — drinking is cool and non-drinkers are losers. It’s the same message that is pounded every day into the public’s conscience by the constant barrage of beer commercials on television and radio and the hard liquor ads on the billboards and magazines.
I understand that restaurants make a lot of their profit margin off of liquor sales, but wouldn’t it be nice if just once there was a restaurant that catered at least as much to the non-drinkers?
Imagine for a minute if the tables were turned. You walk into a restaurant and they hand you a separate menu for the non-alcoholic beverages. It contains a mile-long list of teas — herbal, fruit, Oriental, English, Irish, etc. — served hot or cold; fruit drinks and juices made from a dozen native and tropical combinations; coffees and espressos and cappuccinos with dozens of flavors to choose from; and along with the usual array of sodas there are numerous off-brands and natural sodas typically found only in health food stores.
When it comes time to order, ask for a beer and watch as they bring you your one and only choice of generic, no-name beer.
Such an arrangement would certainly take a lot of the glamour and mystique out of drinking alcohol.

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